Can This Case Study End Racism At Harvard Business School?

Alterrell Mills graduated with his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2016

Alterrell Mills graduated with his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2016

For the past nine decades, the case study has been at the core of the learning experience at Harvard Business School. HBS invented it, put it at the heart of the school’s teaching philosophy, invests massive money and time on it every year, and sells more than 14.5 million cases a year to other schools and organizations all over the world. In short, the case study is equivalent to the Bible in the religion of capitalism.

So when Alterrel Mills, who graduated from Harvard with his MBA in four years ago, began to think about how he might influence his alma mater to make more progress on racial inequality, he decided to adopt the school’s approach and write a case on Harvard Business School’s lackluster efforts. The case–entitled The Business School Searches For A New Dean–comes more than three months after Dean Nitin Nohria made a rare public apology for failing to mount a more successful fight against racism and for not serving the school’s black community members better. And it arrives days before Nohria is expected to announce an action plan to address what some observers have called the “anti-black practices” at Harvard Business School.

That mea culpa in early June came as protests swept through the U.S. and foreign capitals since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Now, with still more protests roiling American cities in the aftermath of the shooting by police of Jacob Blake Jr. in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Mills is hoping that this is a moment in history when positive change is more possible than it has been in a long time.


Like most Harvard case studies, it is loaded with facts around a generally sterile narrative devoid of emotion–and that’s exactly what Mills was aiming for. “People who are going to take this seriously are going to want facts, not feelings,” he says. “While yes it is another HBS case, my goal is that this is a case that will not be needed someday. The point of teaching the case is to engage others in a Socratic discussion. It’s a way to look at this problem objectively, the way we are taught at Harvard. You have to use the tools of communication that others are using. So if they discount it, they have to throw away everything.”

The 25-page case opens with a scene. Harvard University President Larry Bacow is sitting in his campus office, reflecting on the unprecedented events that have unfolded this year from COVID to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud  Arbery. After reading a lengthy email from black HBS alums with a list of proposed solutions on how to move forward, Bacow prepares for his next meeting, a discussion on the criteria for Nohria’s successor.

Then, the sober facts tumble off the pages of the case study: The percent of Black HBS graduates has remained comparatively flat since the 1970s. Black graduates represent less than 5% of the alumni base. Black representation at the business school is much lower than it is at Harvard’s law school or Harvard College. Out of more than 200 professors, there are only two Black tenured faculty members–and the school has granted tenure to only four Black Americans in its entire history. The number of cases featuring Black protagonists in the first-year required curriculum (RC) is in the single digits (it is actually just two out of some 250 cases studied in the core curriculum).


“Of the few cases that center on Black protagonists or topics in the RC,” writes Mills, “nearly all of them fail to meaningfully engage or discuss the cultural context of race. Radio One, a finance case, is used as a device to teach discounted cash flows but glosses over the additional obstacles Black entrepreneurs face in raising capital or the future viability of urban media…None of the RC year cases study Black CEOs on the Fortune 500 list.”

That means, Mills points out, that Harvard has never written a case on Kenneth Chenault, one of the most prominent Black chief executives in the world who held the top post at American Express for 17 years from 2001 and 2018. Mills had worked at Amex before going to Harvard. Neither have cases been written on other successful Black corporate leaders such as Don Thompson at McDonald’s, Ursula Burns at Xerox, or Roger Ferguson at TIAA-CREF.

A case on Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, the only African-American running a top global biopharma company, focuses on his decision to quit Trump’s manufacturing council in the wake of the president’s unwillingness to single out white supremacy groups in the violent protests in Charlottesville, VA. Another 2016 case on J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison centers on his turnaround plan for the retailer. Both of those cases are in elective courses where few students would gain exposure to them.


Thinking back on his own HBS experience, Mills says he was surprised by the lack of Black protagonists in the cases he had to study and even more shocked by the lack of discussion of race in classrooms. “It’s more than cases. I had in my entire two years one black faculty member during my first year and zero my second year. The black protagonists in cases were more often athletes or entertainers like Lebron James, Beyonce, and Serena Williams. They don’t address systemic racism.”

The lack of case studies with Black protagonists has even greater meaning because 80% of the cases studied by MBA students all over the world are from the Harvard Business School. “Harvard is not only the source of most of those cases,” adds Mills, “it is also in many cases the source of faculty for other schools. So it would only make sense for them to get it right so other schools get it right, too.”

Having been a co-president of the African American Student Union (AASU) while at HBS and a writer of two case studies with Black protagonists, Mills believes there is also something about the culture that prevents open discussions and full inclusion. “The other challenge is that non-Black students will not engage those topics, and some of the Black students in class don’t want to be blacklisted so they don’t bring it up, either. If you say something that is from a place of passion or emotion and someone’s retort is fact-based you feel like crap and probably won’t speak on race again.


“In some classes where there are five or six Black people, there are times when we are all looking at each other, wondering who is going to speak up about race. Most sections at Harvard have five or six black people and you realize that is your network. Being seen as the person who is pushing this agenda will push a lot of people away. There is a level of hostility that is so subtle it requires real political savvy to know how to navigate that. For many has students, that level of politicking is not familiar.”

When he was co-president of AASU, he tried to nudge things in the right direction. “I don’t think we realized that the school was just stalling us,” he says. “In my year, we were concerned with advocacy. We talked with the administration about the case study issue, and they didn’t give us the approval to speak to the 11-course heads about Black protagonists in case studies until two weeks before the end of school. What you don’t realize as a student is that some of these tactics are advanced.”


Mills’ MBA helped him land a job in Tesla’s leadership development program and he is currently director of business development and strategy for a startup called Jupe Inc., a housing technology platform. “Harvard Business School afforded me many opportunities,” adds Mills, “but on campus, inclusion is a problem for many groups. Being a black gay man is super challenging. It’s super hard. It’s hard for lots of people, and more graduates of the school have since shared their experiences at not being comfortable at times. I wouldn’t say that Harvard is affirming to all types of folks. At the end of the day, I understood what Harvard was like and I had a realistic perspective of what it could be like and I worked within the rules of that system.”

And with his case study, he is still trying to work within the rules.

The case concludes with President Bacow preparing to meet a potential candidate for HBS dean. “He wonders, ‘Are we delivering on the mission?’ And makes a note to ask all prospective candidates this very question. This reminds him of one of the goals discussed in the HBS Annual Report: ‘HBS (is) to serve as a living example of a well-run organization, embodying the skills, tools and frameworks taught across the School’s educational programs.


“He knows some progress has been made but that the future is bright. He makes his way to the door and spots the school crest hanging in his office. It reads ‘Veritas,’ Latin for truth. As the University President of Harvard, he is acutely aware of the gravity of his decision, especially as he will soon appoint the next HBS Dean. He grabs his framework and list of questions and leaves for his meeting.”

Ultimately, Mills thinks the forthcoming change in leadership at Harvard Business School is an opportunity for positive change. Norhia will step down from the deanship at the end of this year, and the school should name a successor well before then. “I think the school needs to take a look at its record on race and gender,” he says. “What they have been doing I don’t think has been working. I hope the president can find someone who will take this issue more seriously.”

Mills says that one of his section mates from HBS wants to host a discussion on the case. “Some folks are sharing it with other schools,” he adds. “Even today, though, Harvard Business School is just a symbol. It’s not the only place that has a problem. But right now, it feels like we are in the second civil rights movement, with all of the civil action, the responses from corporations, and the national discourse. So much of this feels like the 1960s. It feels like we are in this weird repeating of history where we know some progress has been made but we are now moving backward or not far enough from where we came from.”

DON’T MISS: How To Make Black Lives Matter At Harvard Business School or Harvard Business School Case Study: Why Progress Stalled For African-Americans







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